(Bloomberg) -- On the edge of a rocky cliff reaching into the Atlantic, Emmanuel Macron stood ready to point his guests toward the white lighthouse where he was about to sit his fellow Group of Seven leaders down to a serious talk about the climate, over glasses of champagne.
Last in was Donald Trump, who doesn’t drink alcohol, doesn’t enjoy being lectured to (especially about the environment) and who, in spite of an outwardly amicable two-hour lunch with his host, suspected the French president might be trying to outwit the U.S. with his summit choreography.
And he’s not exactly wrong to be worried.
Macron had ripped up the script before anyone even landed in the seaside resort of Biarritz: picking a fight with Brazil over Amazon forest fires, surprising the Europeans with a threat to block a trade deal with Latin America, and keeping allies guessing about what trick he would pull next.
The secrecy extended to the dinner that followed on Saturday night. Normally aides would be able to listen in to the leaders’ conversation from an adjacent room. Not this time. The French say their plan was to have a G-7 more like the intimate versions of the 1970s, when heads of state could talk frankly without handlers over a glass of brandy.
At the table, the Amazon fires occupied the bulk of the meal before the dialogue segued to Iran, Ukraine and Russia. According to French officials, points of convergence were found. On Sunday, the economy was the focal point.
With mounting threats to the global economy, divisions over Iran, and the Amazon fires creating a sense of crisis about the environment, the French organizers also want to avoid leaks that could lead to the kind of public bust-ups that have marred other recent international gatherings. For better or worse, G-7 meetings are a critical institution when it comes to addressing truly worldwide problems.
What the French hosts can’t control is a U.S. leader who already seems on edge, after spending Friday lashing out at the Federal Reserve and China as the trade war he began risks tipping the world into recession.
In Chancellor Angela Merkel’s view, Trump came to the summit weakened by the possible economic consequences of the trade dispute with China, according to a senior German official.
As soon as they landed, U.S. officials complained that Macron was trying to fashion the weekend’s agenda to isolate Trump, framing it around climate change and straying from the G-7’s original purpose as an economic bloc. French officials at every level had been difficult to deal with in preparation for the summit, the Americans said.
They accused the French of ignoring U.S. input and then blaming Washington for blocking consensus. It was an attack that caught the French off-guard. Macron’s officials disputed the account, pointing out that the first item on the agenda when Sunday’s work sessions get under way will be trade and the global economy, Trump’s main priority.
The cracks are showing, even as Macron tries to paper over them. He grabbed Trump as soon as the U.S. leader arrived and invited him for lunch -- a spur-of-the-moment gesture at an often meticulously-scheduled event. It looked cordial enough, although Trump did slip in that “every so often we go at it a little bit.”
Still, in a tweet sent shortly before 1 a.m. Sunday local time Trump praised France, Macron and said his dinner with other leaders “went very well.”
It never gets easier to deal with Trump, the German official said. Merkel always invites him to Germany when she sees him and he always accepts. But nothing comes of it; Trump’s main visit to Germany as president was for a G-20 summit in July 2017.
Softening Up Trump
In the opening maneuvers in Biarritz, the German official said, European leaders will be trying to soften Trump up so that he’ll be more responsive to their key message -- that his trade war is hurting all of them.
But how to deliver that message in a way that it can be heard? Macron has already shelved the one-communique format in favor of statements on various things the leaders can agree on, but which U.S. officials saw as niche matters.
French officials said Macron wanted to ease his conflicts with Trump over climate, trade and a new French tax that hits U.S. internet giants. But his main play was over Iran.
Over lunch, Macron suggested a proposal allowing Iran to export oil for a limited period of time if it returned to compliance with the nuclear accord and agrees to formal talks. The French side had no comment on Trump’s reaction to the idea, but it would be a comprehensive reversal of his Middle East strategy if he signed up to it. A U.S. official deemed it a non-starter.
Hot Mic Incident
Macron’s climate gambit doesn’t look likely to succeed either, and not just because of Trump. His fast-and-furious actions against Brazil were done without consulting his allies and many disagreed with the tactic of linking climate with trade, rather than tackling them separately.
A German official said the chancellor found Macron’s knee-jerk reaction unhelpful and Boris Johnson, the newly-minted U.K. prime minister, wasn’t impressed either. “There are all sorts of people who will take any excuse at all to interfere with trade and to frustrate trade deals, and I don’t want to see that,” Johnson told reporters.
As they settled down to the talks, a television camera caught a rare example of how high-level diplomacy works. The Europeans were gathered around a table, brainstorming on how to delicately apply pressure on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to tame the Amazon fires, without antagonizing him all over again.
Merkel said she would call him next week “so he gets the impression that we are not working against him.” Johnson nodded vigorously in agreement: “I think this is important.”
“Yeah, yeah, I am with you,” said Macron. “Do we call him...?”
Moments later, a hand jammed into the lens of the camera, and the feed died.
(Adds details from dinner.)
--With assistance from Arne Delfs and Josh Wingrove.
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